An Australian-led peacekeeping force that came to put an end to the bloodshed in East Timor mounted its first heavily armed patrols today through quiet rows of blackened houses and looted buildings that are all that remain at the center of this once-vibrant city.
Welcomed by Indonesian officers--and even by some of the militiamen responsible for the sacking of Dili--the peacekeepers met no armed resistance and were greeted by smiles from the few relieved civilians who moved about the still smoking streets.
"God has sent these soldiers here," said Sister Marguerite Suares, 82, who led a small group of pro-independence displaced people who knelt before a statue of the Virgin Mary at a park here to offer a quiet prayer of thanks after three weeks of mayhem.
As Australian officers took charge on the ground, Indonesian rule over the long-disputed territory--rejected by the population in a U.N.-sponsored referendum Aug. 30--seemed to be coming to an end. A Portuguese colony for four centuries, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia in 1975 after Portugal withdrew following a change in government in Lisbon.
More than 1,000 peacekeeping soldiers were ferried in through the day, filing out of C-130 Hercules transport planes at the airport here. Some troops swiftly took up positions to secure the facility for additional landings while others moved to the port to make it safe for transport ships.
Flights were scheduled to continue around the clock from Darwin, Australia, less than 500 miles southeast of Dili, and from Townsville, 1,000 miles farther down the northeast Australian coast. More troops and equipment--including armored vehicles and munitions--were on the way in Australian and other ships.
Officials said more than 2,000 peacekeepers were expected to be on the ground by Tuesday, including Australians, New Zealanders, British and French. They were to be joined later by troops from other Asian nations--and several hundred U.S. logistics and intelligence specialists--in a force expected to total 7,500.
The militia gangs that rampaged in Dili after the independence referendum had largely dissolved. Those who remained posed little threat, but their plans for the future remained uncertain. One report said several militias have joined forces in a coalition called the United Nation Front and may seek to retain control of part of East Timor.
"We won't attack the U.N. peacekeeping troops," said Joao da Silva Tavares, who was identified by Indonesia's SCTV television as the coalition leader. "We only want to defend our ground."
The Indonesian military, which witnesses said had abetted the violence and wallowed in the looting, turned benevolent as the peacekeeping forces took control. Officers shook hands with their counterparts in the peace force, and soldiers standing in the tropical heat and humidity were seen smiling at the newcomers' heavy equipment and flak vests.
The peacekeeping force commander, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove of Australia, told reporters his troops "met absolutely no resistance" as they moved from the airport and seaport into the largely destroyed city. Eight men were detained for carrying weapons, but they made no attempt to challenge peacekeepers, Australian military spokesman Chip Henriss-Anderssen said.
Some Australian and British soldiers were transported in trucks driven by the Indonesian military, whose willingness to cooperate with the operation had been in doubt until today. Indonesian soldiers and even men driving in militia trucks also waved at the U.N. trucks that began to wind through the streets.
"It's absolutely calm and quiet. It's been very amicable, very cordial, very friendly," said Lt. Col. Masaad Ahmad Khan, a Pakistani soldier assigned to the United Nations who stayed in Dili throughout the violence.
The smiles hid the hatreds that have ripped through Dili, the East Timor capital, in the three weeks since the region voted to embrace independence from Indonesia. The capital has been ravaged; throughout the city black smears testified to wholesale torching. Homes, businesses and hotels were looted. Many houses have simply been destroyed.
The port area was surrounded by a tide of weary families, still hoping to leave on troopships or ferries, despite the arrival of the multinational force. Many said they had been waiting there for two weeks.
"They burned my house. I had no other place to go," said a young man on a bicycle. He and the others appeared to have enough to eat; several of the displaced people had many bags of rice at their encampment.
Offshore, several warships lay at anchor. As Sister Marguerite led the Catholic prayers at sundown, the Islamic call to prayer drifted across the waters from one of the Indonesian ships, signifying one of the many divisions among the people of Indonesia and East Timor that exploded into violence.
The relief at the arrival of the peacekeeping forces did not erase the human loss before they came. Death was cheapened here. Sister Marguerite noted offhandedly that "just one man was killed" in the churchyard. "I don't know his name," she said.
The accounts of the displaced people who fled East Timor suggest that hundreds or thousands were killed, some of them in mass murders that eventually may become the grist for trials of crimes against humanity.
"There are many bodies that have been taken away," said a Dili woman who identified herself only as Laurentina.
Zoao Sarmento, 23, a student, said he believes about 80,000 people fled the violence in Dili and have been camping in the hills. "The situation there is terrible. Many of the children and the old people have died. There is no food, no medicine," he said.
U.N. aid workers who began to fan out today said they believe some of the most vulnerable have died but that the situation is not yet overwhelming.
"Starvation is not the issue," said Bernard Kerblat, a worker with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who had just returned from Dare, a rural area said to be among the neediest. "These people have developed serious coping mechanisms. They know what survival is all about."
Still, Ian Martin, who heads the U.N. Assistance Mission in East Timor, said those who fled to the hills are hungry. "There is not enough food and water and medicine," he added.
Martin, who returned to Dili this morning, said he is gratified at the "speed with which the U.N. Security Council and the humanitarian agencies responded." Still, only a trickle of those who fled Dili began to return, despite the spectacle of one large aircraft after another landing in Dili to disgorge troops and supplies.
"I went up to the mountains to tell the people that they could come down. But many of them said they are still afraid," said Francisco Pinheiro, 35, a seminary priest.
CAPTION: A young East Timorese bicycles past Australian peacekeepers who, after their arrival, secured the port in Dili for transport ships.
CAPTION: An Australian peacekeeper checks an anti-independence militiaman, right, after confiscating a rifle. A force commander said his troops "met absolutely no resistance."